A sermon by Randy Hyde, Pastor, Pulaski Heights Baptist Church, Little Rock, Ar.
September 15, 2013
Psalm 14:1-7; Luke 15:1-10
There are three parables in the fifteenth chapter of Luke’s gospel. Since we read only the first two, I must ask: did you take a peek at the third one? You may very well be familiar with these first two, the one about the lost sheep and the lost coin. But the third one… well, my guess is that you know it very well, you’ve heard it so often. We call it the parable of the prodigal son, the most famous of all Jesus’ stories. You know that one, don’t you? Like the back of your hand, probably.
What you may not know, or at least have not given a lot of thought to, is the audience Jesus is addressing. He’s sharing these stories largely with the religious establishment. Oh, the tax collectors and sinners, as Luke describes them, are present as well. But I think Jesus is speaking primarily not to them but to the religious leaders who have made such a habit of following him around. He’s not preaching to the lay people, he’s speaking to the professionals.
Wait a minute… these parables have to do with lostness, don’t they?… a lost sheep, a lost coin, a lost son. Why is Jesus telling these stories to people who are obviously not lost? Why isn’t Jesus talking to those known sinners, the ones he spent so much of his time with… you know, the prostitutes and tax collectors and such? The religious leaders aren’t lost. They’re the cream of the crop, the keepers of the keys, the Pharisees and the scribes.
They’re also the ones who have criticized Jesus for not abiding by the rules. And, of course, he isn’t. Why would Jesus talk to them about lost things and lost people? Why preach about lostness to those who sit in the pews every week and pay their tithe like clockwork? Why is Jesus preaching to the choir?
And what shepherd in his right mind would leave the ninety-nine to go traipsing after the one? And why would a woman tear up her house searching for a misplaced coin? Did Jesus tell these stories with a straight face, or was he pulling one over on those people who have been following him around trying to make things hard for him? Is this some kind of payback on his part?
Maybe he tells these stories to the scribes and Pharisees because they are meant for those who have already been found, and cannot, in their hearts, accept those who are still lost. Repentance is required on many levels, and what the religious leaders need to repent of is their hard-heartedness, their unwillingness to see others with God’s extravagant eyes. Maybe Jesus is really telling them that they just don’t get it.
Jesus tells these stories in response to their grumblings about his acceptance of sinners and his eating with sinners. So allow me to set up a scenario…
One Sunday, as you leave this place of worship, a fellow comes up to you asking for something to eat. He smells of booze, and his hair looks like not even a bird would want to use it for making a nest. What is your first instinct? This fellow doesn’t want something to eat, he wants you to give him money so he can go buy more booze. But you also sense that he isn’t going to go away any time soon. So in an effort, as much to get rid of him as to be generous to him, you give him a few bucks and watch as he saunters away. And then you reconcile what you’ve just done by saying that this is what Jesus would do. Right?
Well, no, I’m not sure at all that this is what Jesus would do. Look at the gospels. Everywhere he turned he was good to those who asked something of him. In fact, you’ll be hard-pressed to find one instance in which he turned anyone away. If they did go away from him, it was their choice, not his.
How can you say then that Jesus wouldn’t help someone who came up to him and asked for something to eat? We didn’t say that; we said that Jesus would not reach into his pocket and give the stranger money… and it isn’t because Jesus never appeared to be carrying money.
No, what Jesus would do is invite the guy to dinner. Jesus would sit down with him and listen to his story. Jesus would put his arm around the guy, body odor and all, bad hair and all, and would learn the fellow’s story. And having heard the man’s story, he would then offer food that could never spoil, water that would never run dry, and a sense of acceptance that would encourage him toward a life that journeys more in the direction of the extravagant God who inspired everything Jesus said and did.
Jesus would not open his pocketbook, not that he even had one. Jesus would open his heart.
Which is a strange thought if you look at these stories in their context. Just prior to these parables, Jesus tells the large crowds following him – which probably include pretty much the same people he is addressing here with these parables – that in order to follow him they must hate their father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters… “yes, and even life itself,” Jesus says… or they cannot be his disciples.
On one hand he makes heavy demands, on the other he talks about God’s extravagant acceptance of sinners. Which is it? He can’t have it both ways, can he? He says that in order to follow him, his would-be disciples must do more than be found; they must be willing to give everything away and die with him. It’s a tough – and on the face of it – mixed up message. So what gives?
Maybe it had to do with who was listening to him at any given time, and what the challenges were that he was facing.
For example, the conflicts between Jesus and the religious authorities were almost always over the propriety of his ministry… how he conducted himself, what he had to say about God and how he said it, the company he chose to keep. As far as the religious leaders were concerned, it wasn’t proper to allow his disciples to pluck grain on the Sabbath, especially with unwashed hands. But that’s what Jesus did. It wasn’t proper to touch unclean people, even if that touch brought healing. Jesus did that too. It wasn’t proper to heal on the Sabbath, even if that healing was doing good. Jesus didn’t hesitate to do that either.
One lesson which Jesus obviously had not learned, but was alive and well in his day, was that proper religious folk do what is proper. So, the questions put to him by people like the Pharisees and scribes generally had to do with what was proper.
“Tell us, Teacher, is it proper to pay taxes to Caesar?”
“Rabbi, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such. What do you say about her? Is it proper that we do so?”
“Is it proper for a man to divorce his wife?”
And when they weren’t asking questions they were grumbling among themselves. “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
Everywhere Jesus turned, he was running into the religious wall constructed by the religious leaders.
Well, have you ever asked yourself what was important to Jesus? You probably know. After all, this is a fairly knowledgeable crowd when it comes to the scriptures. In other words, you know your Bible. I imagine that is especially true as far as the gospels are concerned. You’re aware of the stories about Jesus, and what they tell us about his public ministry, his journey to the cross and then the experience of the resurrection. You may not be familiar with every little nuance of those stories (I’m certainly not, and that’s supposed to be my business), but you’re hardly illiterate when it comes to knowing what the scriptures have to say. But have you ever wondered what was most important to Jesus?
Not that I have all the answers, but allow me to give you a hint. But first, I’ll tell you what apparently was not important to Jesus. He didn’t concern himself much with the rules of the day. It would be interesting to take the lessons Jesus taught and then hold them up in the revealing light to compare them with the rules that were so important to the religious establishment that opposed him, maybe even the rules that we think are vital to our faith today. We might be surprised by what we find.
But since the scribes and Pharisees aren’t here to defend themselves, let’s pick on them for a moment. What was important to them? What was the focus of their criticisms of Jesus? As we mentioned, they complained about Jesus’ disciples plucking and eating grain with unwashed hands. They didn’t like it when Jesus healed on the sabbath because that, in their minds, constituted work… a definite no-no. They accused Jesus of giving attention to the wrong kind of people, the sinners.
You and I wouldn’t think twice of stopping at the local grocery store on our way home from church, if we have run out of necessities like bread and milk. And we wash our hands, not for religious reasons but we know it is good hygiene. And we do this all on our Sabbath, on Sunday. But what if we couldn’t do these things because of our religious convictions?
Are these things, so vital to the religious leaders of Jesus’ day, important to us? Of course not. Now, take a look at what was important to Jesus two thousand years ago. What was it? According to these parables he told, he said of utmost importance is the lost being found. Is that important to us? Will it still be important to those who come after us, say in another two thousand years? In other words, what part of Jesus’ gospel is timeless?
Jesus didn’t put much stock in the importance of the temple and its upkeep. That was important to them too. He predicted it would fall, and indeed it did. He wasn’t worried about what people thought of him, because the ones who did think of him in a negative light were not the ones he had come to seek and to save in the first place. Those who are well, he said, have no need of a physician, but only those who are ill. His sole concern was for the needs of those he met, for sharing with them the nature of his heavenly Father’s kingdom. And though he admitted the poor will be with us always, he became angry when he witnessed those who took advantage of the poor and the sick, and he threw his shoulder against the established government that took advantage of the poor while lining their own pockets. I wonder what he would think of our Congress today.
It didn’t matter who they were, if he saw people who had need of what he uniquely was able to offer, he gravitated toward them and they toward him. In fact, he was quite careless about the company he kept. Why, he just threw his mercy and his grace around as if he had an unlimited supply of it. And the Pharisees and the scribes didn’t like it.
You and I wonder what the fuss is all about. If Jesus wants to hang around with people like that, what business is it of theirs? This, as I see it, is the key: perhaps Jesus, then and now, simply had a way of drawing people to himself in such a way it caused friction on the part of those who felt they have some ownership of him… and if not ownership of Jesus, ownership of the kind of business Jesus was in. Perhaps the scribes and Pharisees thought he was invading their waters, and in doing so broke the rules they had established. If he’s going to claim a special relationship with God, then he needs to portray God the way they want him to do it.
They had a strong sense of entitlement when it came to God, and they weren’t going to let anyone – certainly this upstart Nazarene – mess with their good thing.
Simply put, they didn’t like the company Jesus kept, and they certainly didn’t believe in his extravagant God. And that is the backdrop to these stories Jesus told… of a lost sheep, a lost coin, and finally, a lost son. God’s extravagant acceptance and grace.
Take a journey through the gospels and what you will find is that Jesus kept company with all the wrong people… sick folk, illiterate fishermen, tax collectors, prostitutes, lepers, Samaritans, even those who were dead. The unclean, the sinners, the lost… to Jesus, they are his brothers and his sisters.
What does that say to you and me? If we want to keep company with Jesus, we will find him among those he came to seek and to save. If we want to be like Jesus, we might just have to re-think our daily agenda and go where he goes, do what he does, love those he loves.
Are we ready to do that? It’s certainly something for us to think about, isn’t it? It might require us to make drastic changes in the way we look at things and in the way we live. But that may just be what it takes if we want such an extravagant God to keep company with us.
Lord, you’ve been extravagant with us, each of us. Now, give us a heart like yours that we might do the same with those we meet. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.